2015 is a notable year for Luise, being the 80th anniversary both of her move to Hollywood and of her first American film, MGM’s Escapade. 1935 was the year which changed everything for her, in love and in life. Today, 9th January, marks 80 years to the day that Luise boarded the luxury passenger ship Ile-de-France at Le Havre in northern France to head for her new life in the USA. Already a star of the stage in Europe she couldn’t have possibly imagined how her decision to take up the offer of a contract at MGM would change the course of her life. Leaving behind her family, and a continent on the brink of war, she travelled alone, except for her Scottish terrier, Johnny.
The journey took a week and whilst on board Luise celebrated her 25th birthday (12th January 1935). But, she was in good company; the Ile-de-France was a grand liner favoured by rich Americans and Europeans making the journey to New York. The ship had a distinguished career as a passenger ship before ferrying troops during the war and, in a bizarre coincidence, it ended it’s life ignominiously with an appearance in the MGM film, The Last Voyage (1960), where it was partly blown up. In 1999 Luise talked about the trip when she appeared on the BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs, recalling her dinner date with fellow passengers, Feodor Chaliapin and Mischa Elman. Word had got around the ship that she would be celebrating a birthday whilst on board and when she arrived for dinner she was met with flowers and a menu dedicated to her – “Birthday luncheon for Luise Rainer”. She could hardly believe it, “I am nothing!” she thought, as the great opera singer and violinist serenaded her with a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
A look at the passenger list (below) for that crossing confirms the presence of Luise and Chaliapin amongst bankers, diplomats and industrialists. Luise, whose destination is noted as Culver City, the home of MGM, has her passage paid for by the studio. Luise wasn’t the only notable person on board: playwright John Van Druten, car and speedboat racer Kaye Don, entertainer Eddie Cantor were amongst the passengers and there were also Federal Agents aboard, escorting three witnesses in the Lindbergh Baby trial to New York where they were to testify in the murder trial of Bruno Hauptmann. Security was high at departure and upon arrival, with agents guarding the witnesses on board. This wasn’t the only drama to take place on the ship. In an episode that Luise rarely ever spoke about: before leaving Germany, and perhaps a deciding factor in her decision to go, Luise had lost her fiance, who was killed unexpectedly in a plane crash. Details of this affair are sketchy, but I believe he was a high-ranking official, a Dutchman who courted her with private flights in his two-seater aeroplane. It was he who flew her to London for her screen test for Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms in 1934 and with whom she fell in love for the very first time. In late 1934 he was killed when his plane came down in Africa; a devastated Luise began a short fling with his brother, confused and in mourning, “I had mixed them up in my mind but they were not at all alike,” she said, in an interview in 2000, one of the very few occasions where she discussed her life before Hollywood. Whilst on board she discovered that she was pregnant with her dead lover’s child and realised at once that she couldn’t have this new life and career and the child. “It was a romantic, idiotic thing! I thought that the child would be like him… it was a young foolishness.” She honestly believed that she wouldn’t be long in Hollywood, that they would realise they had made a terrible mistake in bringing her all that way; there is, perhaps, a sense that Luise would’ve kept the child had her expectations been borne out and she’d returned home to Germany. Luise always intimated that it was her decision not to have the child but it’s not difficult to imagine the reaction of her new bosses at MGM upon discovery that their bright new star was pregnant.
She arrived in New York on 14th January 1935, met by a barrage of photographers and MGM officials. Luise Rainer had arrived in America, a star was about to be born and film history was about to be made….